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'It's Not Just the Internet’: How Online Communities Like Reddit Chill Dissent

Are sites like Reddit and Twitter really just disinterested bulletin boards? Or do they have a responsibility to make the Internet safer?

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The irony was palpable on Sunday when KotakuInAction, the hub for Gamergate on social site Reddit, was named “Subreddit of the Day.”

For starters, Reddit’s own CEO, Ellen Pao, is currently in the midst of a sex discrimination lawsuit against her former employers at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. It was also International Women’s Day, and — in case you’re just joining us — Gamergate is an online movement that began last August as a harassment campaign against two women in the video game industry.

There are important differences between the two newsy events to think about, though. Both center on communities that are uncomfortable, if not outright hostile to women, but Pao’s trial alleges institutional sexism at a place of power.

Gamergate, meanwhile, has been enabled by the silence of many of those in power, but is more about popular sexism, and how it gets amplified by sites like, well, Reddit.

Video game developer Zoe Quinn, who was one of the primary targets of the Gamergate movement, made a salient point about the power of online communities.

“It’s not ‘just’ the Internet,” she said in a talk at this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “It’s time we have our Soylent Green moment, and realize: ‘Oh my God, the Internet is people!’ It’s not some alternate universe where things don’t matter.”

Gamergate is just one example here — on Monday, Gawker called out other subreddits that are proudly racist against black people. Last year, Re/code’s Kara Swisher penned this essay about how the anonymity of the social Web enabled the harassment of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda and the posting of rape gifs on the feminist blog Jezebel. And in recent months, anonymous messaging services like Yik Yak and After School have become virtual centers for cyberbullying and threats.

That said, the “Subreddit of the Day” distinction earned by /r/KotakuInAction wasn’t a decision made by people who work for Reddit. It’s an honor bestowed by a group of volunteer moderators who run /r/subredditoftheday/, a popular section of Reddit with more than 100,000 followers.

The problem is that the platforms’ tolerance (or willful ignorance) of hateful groups creates a chilling effect for marginalized voices, leaving them feeling unwelcome.

“When places like Reddit or Twitter say they have a ‘commitment to free speech,’ they’re not talking about the First Amendment,” said Sarah Jeong, a legal expert and co-author of the email newsletter Five Useful Articles. “It’s actually pretty incoherent what they’re after, like they want to defer the responsibility of what they think should or shouldn’t be on Reddit or Twitter.”

Ironically, when Re/code interviewed Ellen Pao last April, shortly after she joined Reddit, she mostly skirted the topic of regulating the site’s darkest corners. When asked about how businesses might feel running ads next to disturbing content, she only said advertisers don’t have to advertise in subreddits they didn’t want to.

“Each subreddit is a separate community, and those members of the community decide what they want to see,” Pao said. “If you don’t like it, you can get out of that subreddit and you don’t have to advertise there. But if you do like it, then you’ve got people who are like-minded and who are interested in seeing the same content.”

She has a point — Reddit users can also control exactly which subreddits populate their home pages, making it relatively easy to unsubscribe from a troubling community.

Elsewhere, though, it can be trickier. As a woman working in the video game industry told Re/code last month at the DICE Summit, she considered shutting down her public Twitter account to get away from Gamergate, but decided against it because it would close off a potentially useful marketing avenue.

Social media sites like Reddit can also provide a big payoff for their investors. Since 2006, Reddit has been owned by Conde Nast parent Advance Publications, which reorganized it as a “re-incorporated independent entity” in 2011, giving Reddit more financial autonomy (at the time, it had $20 million in the bank).

Last September, Re/code reported that Reddit was looking to raise over $50 million in a funding round that included money from big venture capital players like Andreessen Horowitz and Sequoia Capital. This round set the company’s value at $500 million, meaning Advance’s roughly 50 percent stake in the company is worth at least $250 million.

Like the companies they’ve invested in, these investors have not led the discussion about how to make online voices safer. Maybe they’re just unsure of how to proceed — or maybe it’s because illegal activities like last year’s celebrity phone hacks make a lot of money.

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